MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Lawyers for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis return to court Monday to ask a judge to dismiss a clergy sex abuse lawsuit that’s already forced painful revelations about how top church officials handled allegations of misconduct by priests.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson filed the lawsuit last year for a man identified as Doe 1 who alleges he was molested by the Rev. Thomas Adamson while Adamson was working at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in St. Paul Park around 1976.
But the case has taken on a much greater significance. Anderson offered a novel legal theory that the archdiocese created a “public nuisance,” and has used it to take court-ordered depositions from Archbishop John Nienstedt and other top church leaders — and to make them public.
Here are five things to know about the case and the issues to be discussed Monday:
1. THE LEGAL ISSUES
The archdiocese is asking Ramsey County District Judge John Van de North to dismiss the lawsuit. It says no evidence has emerged to back up Doe 1’s claim that church officials were negligent in assigning Adamson to St. Thomas Aquinas. The archdiocese also argues that the public nuisance claim doesn’t stand up. Van de North wrote in a December ruling that the claim is “a bit of a stretch” and a “particularly close call.” But he let the case go forward, giving Anderson his opening to depose Nienstedt.
Anderson says it’s the first clerical sexual abuse case nationally to try a public nuisance theory. The lawsuit claims the archdiocese created a public nuisance by concealing the names of Adamson and other priests accused of sexually abusing children. Minnesota law defines it as “unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public.” It’s normally up to governmental entities to invoke it, with private parties doing so only in narrow circumstances. The archdiocese says Doe 1 can’t meet that test as the courts have defined it, and that recognizing a public nuisance claim for nondisclosure of information would set an unworkable precedent.
2. WHO’S BEEN DEPOSED?
The highest official was Archbishop John Nienstedt, who’s been under heavy fire since last September after his former adviser on church law, Jennifer Haselberger, publicly alleged a widespread cover-up of sexual misconduct by priests. Others include the Rev. Kevin McDonough and the Rev. Peter Laird, both top deputies to archbishops who played key roles in church’s response to misconduct allegations. Two other archbishops were also interviewed: Archbishop Harry Flynn, who retired in 2008, and Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis, Missouri, a former auxiliary bishop in St. Paul.
3. WHAT THE DEPOSITIONS SHOWED
Nienstedt said under oath that he hadn’t reprimanded or disciplined anyone for the way they’ve handled allegations of clergy sexual abuse, and didn’t think that he should have. Anderson never even asked Nienstedt about Adamson or Doe 1.
McDonough acknowledged he chose not to talk to St. Paul police investigating allegations of recent clergy misconduct. He also acknowledged declining to speak to a task force the archdiocese set up to examine how church officials handled abuse cases.
Laird, who resigned last October, testified that he suggested twice that Nienstedt consider stepping down.
Flynn said he couldn’t remember how he handled abuse cases, even though he’d been portrayed as a national leader on the issue.
Carlson said he wasn’t sure if he knew back in the 1970s or 1980s that it was a crime for an adult to have sex with a child, though he now knows that it is. The St. Louis archdiocese later issued a statement saying he meant that he didn’t know exactly when clergy became bound by Minnesota law to report suspicions of child abuse.
Adamson admitted he molested around 12 teens from the 1960s to the mid-1980s. He said he had considered it more of a sin than a crime. Adamson was removed from active ministry in 1985 and defrocked in 2009. He was never criminally charged.
4. WHAT ELSE HAS BEEN REVEALED IN THIS CASE?
The archdiocese was forced to publish names of 34 priests it said had been “credibly accused.” The Winona diocese, which is also a defendant, disclosed 14.
Last Tuesday, Anderson filed a sworn statement from Haselberger with her most detailed claims yet. She accused archbishops and top staffers of lying to the public and of ignoring a pledge by U.S. bishops not to tolerate priests who abuse children. She also said the archdiocese had a chaotic record-keeping system that helped conceal the backgrounds of guilty priests.
5. WHAT COULD HAPPEN
Van de North could agree there’s insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to back Doe 1’s negligence claims. He could also agree that Doe 1 has failed to show the required “special or peculiar injury” from the archdiocese’s failure to release the names of all its accused priests before he sued, and therefore can’t proceed with the public nuisance claim. Or he could rule that there are sufficient legal grounds for going to trial, which is scheduled for Sept. 22.
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